Don Ward and I were utterly out of sync, from the day we met until the hour we last parted. We were baffled by each other, somehow forever falling short of achieving pleasant and productive conversation. Under any other circumstances, we never would have interacted at all. Fate had intervened, however, and he was as stuck with me as I was with him. For four inscrutable years, Don Ward was my appointed college adviser.
That was not the original plan, at least according to an initial schedule. Having declared my major in Photography and Cinema midway through my freshman year at Ohio State, I was assigned to receive academic counseling from an associate professor who had been with the department for over a decade. I had heard good things about him, and he had the bearing of a wise and approachable mentor. But when I tried to make my first appointment, I learned that I had been inexplicably reassigned to one of the newer faculty members.
Kneeling at the altar where one day their children would be served tater tots.
A big cafeteria. That's what you need if you're planning on running an institution that teaches children from first through eighth grade. St. Gerard, my elementary and middle school alma mater, met that requirement with room to spare. As a little kid, our cafeteria seemed like a cavernous space, an immense and spare rectangular room so large that its flat and featureless ceiling was supported by more than half a dozen pillars. If the prospect of attending a school that included students twice your height and age didn't already make you feel small, being herded into the cafeteria for the first time erased any vestiges of pride.
For a hall that admitted plenty of sun through great windows along its length, the St. Gerard cafeteria was run with chilling efficiency. To this day, if I were to walk through its far entrance, I could show you the exact path that we were expected to follow as we wound along the perimeter in single file toward the serving area. There we would pick up the molded plastic trays upon which a small group of cafeteria ladies - some nice, others indifferent, and a few downright intimidating - would deposit the various components of the day's meal. We picked up our milk last, dutifully inserting the half-pint carton into its designated tray compartment, and proceeded toward the seating area.
I imagine that Dick Ireland, were he alive today, would be surprised to learn that a former student fondly and frequently recalls his old geometry and physics teacher nearly thirty years later. Once our mortarboards arced through an overcast spring sky and clattered onto the asphalt parking lot, I never returned. Nor did I bother to contact any of the instructors who were an integral part of my life all those years ago. Somehow the thought of keeping in touch with my alma mater and its faculty seemed like moving backward instead of forward. Yet in a minor irony that I never foresaw as a teenager, I eventually became a teacher myself.
Like most educators, I wonder about the lasting impact of my instruction and guidance. I hope that when I sign off on my last report card, I will have made a net positive difference in the lives of my students. But I'll never really know. Students move on, just as I did. It took me years to truly appreciate what the best of my teachers had given me, just as I had to reach a certain level of maturity to understand how and why the worst of my teachers had shortchanged me. Good or bad, my lasting impressions of them have little to do with the content they labored to teach me.
There is a celebrity educator renowned among teachers for his bestselling books and the extraordinary commitment he has made to fostering the success of disadvantaged students. His achievements and advice are laudable, as is his practice of funding his school with the honorariums he earns as a popular speaker. Anyone would be thrilled to have him looking after the learning of their child. And yet, despite my admiration for all that he has done for children and teachers alike, there is one quirky aspect of his personality that makes me cringe. He is known for spontaneously mounting desks and tables and proceeding to dance.
Now, I have nothing against people dancing. For all I care, the whole of my community can shimmy about as a choreographed flash mob the next time I'm out and about town. I will smile charitably and perhaps even enjoy the display. Just don't ask me to boogie along. Primal as the urge to dance supposedly is, I have never felt the compulsion to bust a move. Just the opposite, in fact. Never am I happier to remain seated than when a group of revelers is dancing. My reluctance to dance is little different than, say, your dismissal of foods you do not like. It's just not for me. I simply do not enjoy it.
But the dancing celebrity educator sees it differently. Not only does he literally put himself on a pedestal and shake his groove thing, he expects everyone else to follow his lead. Whether he is addressing his student body or a convention hall full of teachers, he expects every last soul to clap along.
I grew up believing that the first President of the United States was George Worshington. Oh, I knew it wasn't spelled that way, but that was how I said it. Similarly, I knew my home was equipped with a worsher and dryer, which we used to launder all of our clothes and linen, including the worshcloths. I inherited this peculiar dialectical preference and used it for years without the slightest notion that it was a deviation from standard English. Then one day, in the midst of questioning every other facet of my adolescent existence, I realized that there was no justifiable reason to pronounce wash as worsh, and I was appalled. I had been betrayed by my upbringing, tarred with a rube's tongue, and I vowed to eradicate the vulgarism from my speech at once. It took a few weeks of consciously correcting my bad habit, a learning curve akin to knowing how to use a foreign phrase with the aplomb of a native, but I eventually became forever worsh-free.
The transformation led me to tackle other linguistic abominations as they became apparent to me. I began to enunciate all four syllables of interesting in an effort to combat the gross contraction intresting. I put the first r back into library. I even started adding a g at the end of progressive verbs. Yet I was not a budding usage curmudgeon. I found no pleasure in the superiority of the language police. I simply noticed things that made no sense to me and adjusted my speech accordingly.
I hesitate to add my voice to the clamorous din of narratives and opinions examining the legacy of the 9/11 tragedy on its tenth anniversary. The notorious event was born on the dawn of media saturation, and not even the enormous towers themselves could have contained the last decade's voluminous reporting about their destruction. It seems like every news organization, whether national or local, is compelled to produce copious coverage of the milestone, as though to do anything less would somehow be unpatriotic. It has reached the point where the mere mention of the words, "a look back at 9/11" is enough to make me tune out, and we haven't yet reached Sunday.
It reminds me of an item I saw buried in the back pages of a community newspaper several years ago. A pair of teenagers had come through town in the course of their marathon walk across the state. The purpose of their trek, according to the reporter, was to raise awareness about 9/11. That's a little like staging a publicity stunt in order to call attention to the heliocentric model of our solar system, but kudos to them anyway, as I'm sure their intentions were sincere.
The rain in Maine falls mainly on the...um...rocks, I guess.
The school year is now well underway in central Ohio. Students have settled into familiar routines, teachers are dutifully plowing through the curriculum, and the specter of statewide standardized achievement testing is but a faint glow on the distant horizon. It's the season when the world of a teacher begins to contract like a closing camera aperture. Our collective focus is narrowed on academic objectives and the welfare of our students, leaving comparatively little time for our own extracurricular pursuits. That is why I am especially grateful that I enjoyed a totally fulfilling and restorative summer break.
If you are of the currently fashionable conservative ilk who resent educators as bloated, public-sector leeches sucking the monetary lifeblood out of taxpayer coffers, then read no further, unless you want to risk being provoked into a jealous and indignant rage. For while you were slaving away, trying to prime the sluggish circulation of our torpid economy, I was enjoying the better part of June, July and August in a leisurely existence free from the annoyance of a weekday clock alarm. Seething yet? You might just want to give this lucrative education thing a try.
It took me over thirty years to become a coffee drinker. My java abstinence was an inconspicuous trait for the first eighteen years, as few of my peers cared for a cup o' joe either (although one good friend did try to pull an all-nighter by eating coffee beans). Nor did things change at college, where coffee was surely one of the least preferred beverages. Once I joined the working world, however, I grew a tad self-conscious about my aversion.
Laboring under the fluorescent lights of a windowless office environment, I was surrounded by coworkers who were preoccupied with the status of the break room coffee maker. It was tended to with great care, as an auto enthusiast might treat a prized vehicle. Occasionally someone with little competence in the areas of filter usage and serving measurement would run afoul of those who knew better and henceforth be banned from making coffee. It was serious business, second only to our actual, what-we-were-being-paid-for business. Such is the power of a communal caffeine dependency.
When our eldest daughter was quite young, my wife supplemented our income by providing child care in our home. Amber seemed to enjoy the company of her daily playmates, one of whom was a boy her age named Dylan. The two of them got along well, whether they were building with cardboard bricks or guiding a toy school bus through the living room. One day, however, the mood suddenly turned sour, and that's when my wife first heard it.
Was it a nonsense word, or was it simply an approximation of something one of them had heard? While its origin would remain a mystery, its meaning would not. Over the next few days, the word deebies resurfaced, sometimes arising in a moment of anger and other times sputtered in mock frustration followed by giggles. We looked at the little ones in amazement. Apparently, they had invented their very own swear word.
When it comes to hitting the mark on test scores, one innovative educator at a San Diego charter school may be onto something. Ron Owens, a fifth-grade teacher at Cosner Exceptional Academy, has daringly defied conventional wisdom by putting pocket knives in the hands of elementary students. While many educators might cry foul at the very idea of ignoring zero-tolerance weapons policy, Owens has the full support of CEA's CEO and principal, Horace Cosner.
"The results speak for themselves," gloats Cosner. "Children who regularly participate in Mr. Owens' Mumblety Peg Club score anywhere from fifteen to thirty-seven percent higher than their peers on the Language Arts and Math portions of their state STAR tests."
Yes, mumblety peg, the quaint knife-tossing game that disappeared from schoolyards generations ago, is making a comeback thanks to Owens, and while no one can conclusively prove a causal connection, there is no denying that a correlation between the pastime and higher test scores apparently exists. What is it about this erstwhile bygone pursuit, a series of motions in which players fling knives from their wrists, elbows, shoulders and heads, that seems to sharpen student skills?